Palestinian refugees speak of unbearable conditions in Lebanese camp under siege

A Palestinian woman who fled her north Lebanon refugee camp two days ago says there was so little food there that she was prepared to eat cats to survive.After nearly eight weeks in the besieged camp, Joumana Wehbe fled along with secular Palestinian fighters and their families to free the way for a final army assault on the Al Qaeda-inspired gunmen holed up inside.

Abu Imad Wanni, commander of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ mainstream Fateh movement in Nahr Bared camp, said his leaders had ordered their departure from the camp Wednesday in order to “open the way for a final army assault.” The army has pounded Nahr Bared camp with tank and artillery fire since they left, but has denied launching a final assault against the Fateh Islam fighters barricaded inside.

In an apparent attempt to ease the military pressure and expand the battle outside the camp, the gunmen retaliated Friday by unleashing a volley of nine Katyusha rockets into the surrounding hilltop villages and orange and grape groves, but didn’t cause any casualties.

The army said two soldiers died Friday, one from wounds he suffered in Thursday’s fighting. Friday’s fatalities brought to 94 the number of soldiers killed since fighting began May 20.

Including some 150 people who left Wednesday, most of Nahr Bared’s 30,000 residents had fled since the beginning of the battles. But the conditions had become desperate for those still inside.

“We collected cats so we could eat them if we had to,” said Wehbe who has taken shelter in the nearby Beddawi refugee camp. Both the room where she slept and the only well available were infested with rats, she added.

The last aid shipment into the camp, which included food and water, was delivered on June 20, said Samar Kadi, a spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross.

Wehbe said she had stayed in the camp because she didn’t want to abandon her family home and tile factory and was eventually forced to leave against her will.

The only medic in the camp, a Palestinian nurse, was also one of the last civilians to leave Nahr Bared Wednesday.

He said he had treated so many people since the fighting broke out that he couldn’t keep track.

“There was so much shelling that I couldn’t record their names,” said the nurse, who refused to give his name.

Many of them died from mild wounds because of lack of facilities and medication, or because they were unable to make it to his clinic under heavy shelling, he added.

Most of the men who fled the camp Wednesday were taken away by Lebanese authorities for interrogation. Less than half of the men were freed Friday, while some 70 remained in detention, said Saeid Tawiyeh, an official with the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Wanni, the Fateh commander, said the only people remaining in the camp with the Fateh Islam gunmen were a few of their families and about five fighters from the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

But Kadi, the ICRC spokeswoman, said 60 women and children whose names were on Wednesday’s evacuation list stayed behind.

An amateur tape obtained by the Associated Press Television on Friday showed masked Fateh Islam gunmen hiding in a building damaged by artillery fire in Nahr Bared.

“Enemies of God,” shouted a gunman, apparently referring to Lebanese soldiers before the din of gunfire echoed in the distance.

The tape then showed the body of a dead man wrapped with a blanket, while two wounded men were brought to a clinic inside the camp. It was not clear whether the dead and wounded men belonged to Fateh Islam.

Friday’s attack was the second time Fateh Islam had used Katyusha rockets, firing one outside the camp previously that injured a 9-year-old Lebanese boy.

Wanni said the Katyusha attacks showed the gunmen were desperate. “They left the Katyushas to use at the end of the battle because they knew it’s the beginning of a final assault.

“They’re trying to say we’re still here and we can fight on,” he said.

But he said these rockets will not make a difference on the outcome of the battles, though he warned that the army should act now.

“Without storming the camp nothing will be achieved,” said Wanni.

Fateh Islam gunmen also traded heavy fire Friday with the troops circling them in the refugee camp.

In a statement, the army said it had seized control of a number of buildings that had been used by Fateh Islam gunmen to attack and snipe at soldiers. It said the army was clearing the buildings of mines and booby traps while “continuing to tighten the noose” on remaining gunmen inside.

At least 60 gunmen and more than 20 civilians have been reported killed in the fighting. 

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